Five community energy groups in England and Wales are banding together to buy seven solar farms. The collaboration will see the community solar sector grow by 20%, with about £20m in funds being pumped back into communities
Want to own a power plant? Well, a bit of one, anyway. And not just any old power plant, but a successful, clean, green solar farm – boosting the UK’s energy security and its stock of carbon-slashing, home-grown renewable electricity at a stroke.
Of course you do … Well now that aspiration has just got a whole lot easier, thanks to an imaginative yet well grounded group of five share offers hosted by not-for-profit, positive investment platform, .
It’s giving individuals the chance to buy shares in one or more of seven solar power plants, scattered across southern and central Britain, from Kent and the Isle of Wight to Devon, Shropshire and south Wales.
Each of them will be owned by a community benefit society (CBS), dedicated to generating renewable power in a way that directly benefits the local community. Collectively, these five groups have formed (CET), a partnership that pools their resources, to enable them to raise the funds needed to purchase the plants. So far, over £1m has already been invested.
The seven solar farms have a combined generation capacity of 36MWp – equivalent to meeting the electricity needs of nearly 13,000 homes, cutting carbon emissions by a cool 317,000 tonnes. Once under new ownership, they will boost England and Wales’ total capacity of community-owned solar power by 20%. And green electricity isn’t the only result. They will also, over their lifetime of at least 20 years, generate approximately £20m in funds to be used specifically for projects that benefit the local communities. These could range from energy efficiency and rainwater harvesting systems for public buildings, to programmes that deliver healthy food boxes to families in need.
All the projects are already operating under various commercial owners, but thanks to (Core Partners) they can – with the help of willing investors putting in as little as £250 each through Ethex – now be brought under the direct control of local people.
That sounds simple enough. But financing power plants – even relatively small solar farms – can be a labyrinthine task. So how has this come about?
It started with a collaboration between Big Society Capital, the UK’s leading social impact investor, which aims to grow the amount of money invested in tackling social issues and inequalities, and Power to Change, which was set up to boost community businesses. Recognising the growing opportunities in solar energy in particular, and the increasing appetite of local communities to get involved, they launched Core Partners as a way to turn that appetite into reality.
Using the two founding partners’ combined funds and borrowing power, explains management board member Alex Fowles, Core was able to acquire this portfolio of solar farms at an affordable cost and interest rate. It has worked out significantly cheaper per project than if each had been sold individually. Without this set-up, the projects would have been well beyond the means of any community group.
Our vision is to shift the investment paradigm, so that money becomes a force for good
Then Core approached and worked with Ethex to launch the five share offers, which are aiming to raise the necessary funds for the CBS’ to buy the farms, including managing the costs of running them and servicing the outstanding debts.
This is right up Ethex’s street, says CEO Lisa Ashford. “Our vision is to shift the investment paradigm so that money becomes a force for good. On the one side, we have these amazing communities and social enterprises that are trying to do extraordinary things. And on the other, we have people who want to invest their money into something that aligns with their values, and see the direct impact of what their money is doing.”
Since it was founded 10 years ago, Ethex has specialised in bringing those two together. It helps purpose-led groups get ‘investment-ready’, then publishes their details on a simple which, as Ashford puts it, “allows everyday people to choose projects that align with their moral compass.”
It’s bringing investment down to earth, in every sense of the word. “We’re slick and nimble”, says Ashford. “The absolute opposite to a big fat, opaque fund with high fees!”
For community-owned renewable energy groups like in south Wales, the launch of the share offers is a lifeline. Ant Flanagan, its co-founder, explains that it had been keen to develop a local solar farm on this scale, and now, working as a collective with the other CET members, doing so is well within its reach.
The project in question, Brynwhilach Solar Farm, spread across several fields of low-quality agricultural land near Swansea, has been operating successfully since 2017, regularly outperforming its generation targets. It produces enough electricity for the equivalent of 1,650 average homes and will save over 45,000 tonnes of carbon over its remaining lifetime.
Gower Power already had some experience with smaller-scale solar: a one-acre site near Swansea, and rooftop installations on schools and care homes in the city. And its experience with Ethex has been wholly positive: “We’ve had two schemes on there before, and we’ve raised money very, very effectively with them. It’s tried and tested.”
The are open until 10 November, so if you’re tempted to become a green power magnate – and boost the future of community-owned renewables – now’s your chance to put your money where your mouth is.
Main image: Stafano Lunardi/iStock